Abbas and I heard the cries before Baba. He was focused on inspecting our oranges. He was like that. His family had owned the groves for generations and he said it was in his blood.
‘Baba.’ I tugged on his robe and broke his trance. He dropped the oranges in his arms and ran towards the cries. Abbas and I followed closely.
‘Abu Ahmed!’ Mama’s screams echoed off the trees. When I was born, they had changed their names to Abu Ahmed and Um Ahmed so as to include my name: that of their first son. It was the tradition of our people. Mama ran towards us with our baby sister Sara in her arms. ‘Come home!’ Mama gasped for air. ‘They’re at the house.’
I got really scared. For the last two years, when they thought Abbas and I were sleeping, my parents talked about them coming to take our land. The first time I heard them was the night Amal died. They fought because Mama wanted to bury Amal on our land so she could stay close to us and not be afraid, but Baba said no, that they’d come and take our land and then we’d either have to dig her up or leave her with them.
Baba took baby Sara from Mama’s arms and we ran back to our house.
More than a dozen soldiers were fencing our land and home with barbed wire. My sister Nadia was kneeling under our olive tree holding my middle brothers Fadi and Hani while they cried. She was younger than me and Abbas, but older than the others. Mama always said she’d make a good mother because she was very nurturing.
‘Can I help you?’ Baba asked a soldier, between gulps of air.
‘That’s me,’ Baba said.
The soldier handed Baba a document.
Baba’s face went white like milk. He started to shake his head. Soldiers with rifles, steel helmets, green military fatigues and heavy black boots surrounded him.
Mama pulled Abbas and me close, and I felt her heart beat through her robe.
‘You have thirty minutes to pack your possessions,’ the pimply-faced soldier said.
‘Please,’ Baba said. ‘This is our home.’
‘You heard me,’ Pimply-face said. ‘Now!’
‘Stay here with the little ones,’ Baba told Mama. She burst into tears.
‘Keep it down,’ Pimply-face said.
Abbas and I helped Baba carry out all one hundred and four of the portraits he had drawn over the last fifteen years; his art books of the great masters: Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Rembrandt; the money he kept in his pillow case; the oud his father made him; the silver tea set Mama’s parents gave her; our dishes, cutlery, pots and pans; clothing and Mama’s wedding dress.
‘Time’s up,’ the soldier said. ‘We’re relocating you.’
‘An adventure.’ Baba’s eyes were wet and shiny as he put his arm around Mama, who was still sobbing.
We loaded the wagon with our possessions. The soldiers opened a hole in the barbed-wire fence so we could get out, and Baba led the horse as we followed the soldiers up the hill. Villagers disappeared as we passed them. I looked back; they had completely fenced in our house and orange groves with barbed wire, and I could see them beyond at Uncle Kamal’s, doing the same. They hammered in a sign: Keep Out! Closed Area. It was the same wording that was in front of the field of landmines where my little sister Amal had died.
I kept my arm around Abbas the whole time because he was crying hard, like Mama. I wept too. Baba didn’t deserve that. He was a good person, worth ten of them. More: a hundred; a thousand. All of them.
They led us up the hill through thickets that cut into my legs until we finally arrived at a mud-brick hut that was smaller than our chicken coop. The garden in front was overrun with weeds, and that must have made Mama feel bad because she hated weeds. The shutters were dusty and closed. The soldier cut the lock with bolt cutters and pushed the tin door open. There was only one room, with a dirt floor. We unloaded our belongings and the soldiers left with our horse and cart.
Inside the house there were rush mats piled up in the corner. Goat skins were folded on top of them. There was a kettle in the hearth, dishes in the cabinet, clothes in the closet. Everything was covered in a thick coat of dust.
On the wall was a portrait of a husband and wife and their six children, smiling. They were in our courtyard in front of Mama’s garden.
‘You drew them,’ I said to Baba.
‘That was Abu Ali and his family,’ he said.
‘Where are they now?’
‘With my mother and brothers and Mama’s family,’ he said. ‘God willing, one day they’ll come back, but, until then, we’ll have to pack their belongings in our crate.’
‘Who’s this?’ I pointed to the portrait of a boy my age with a thick red scar across his forehead.
‘That’s Ali,’ Baba said. ‘He loved horses. The first time he rode one, the horse bucked and Ali fell to the ground. He was unconscious for days, but when he woke, he went right back on that horse.’
Baba, Abbas and I organised our birthday portraits on the back wall in a bar graph. Across the top, Baba wrote the years, starting with 1948 until the present year, 1957. Mine was the only portrait in 1948. We continued with every year, adding the new children as they came. I was at the top followed by Abbas in 1949, Nadia in 1950, Fadi in 1951, Hani in 1953, Amal in 1954 and Sara in 1955. But there were only two portraits of Amal.
On the side walls, Baba, Abbas and I arranged the portraits of our family members who we knew were dead: Baba’s father and grandparents. Next to those, we hung up our family in exile: Baba’s mother embracing her ten children in front of the magnificent garden that Mama had built at Baba’s family’s house before they were married, when her parents were migrant workers in Baba’s family’s groves. When Baba came home from art school in Nazareth and saw Mama tending her garden, he had decided to marry her. Baba hung the portraits of himself and his brothers – watching their oranges loaded onto a ship at the port of Haifa, eating at a restaurant in Acre, in the market in Jerusalem, tasting the oranges of Jaffa, vacationing at a coastal resort in Gaza.
The front wall we reserved for immediate family. Baba had drawn many self-portraits while he was in art school in Nazareth. Plus there was: us having a picnic in our orange grove, my first day of school, Abbas and me at the village square looking into the box holes of the moving picture show while Abu Hussein turned the handle, and Mama in her garden – that one Baba had painted with water colours, unlike the others, which he had drawn with charcoal.
‘Where are our bedrooms?’ Abbas scanned the room.
‘We’re lucky to get a home with such a beautiful view,’ Baba said. ‘Ahmed, take him outside to see.’ Baba handed me the telescope I’d made from two magnifying glasses and a cardboard tube. It was the same one I’d used to watch the soldiers plant the landmines in the devil’s field. Behind the house, Abbas and I climbed a beautiful almond tree that overlooked the village.
Through my telescope, we took turns watching the new people, dressed in sleeveless shirts and shorts, already picking oranges from our trees. From our old bedroom window, Abbas and I had watched their land expand as they swallowed up our village. They brought in strange trees and planted them in the swamp. Right before our eyes, the trees grew fat from drinking the fetid juices. The swamp disappeared and in its place rich black topsoil appeared.
I saw their swimming pool. I moved my telescope to the left and could see across the Jordanian border. Thousands of tents with the letters UN littered the otherwise empty desert. I handed the telescope to Abbas so he could see too. One day I hoped to get a stronger lens so that I could see the refugees’ faces. But I’d have to wait. For the past nine years, Baba had been unable to sell his oranges outside the village, so our market shrank from the entire Middle East and Europe to 5,024 now-poor villagers. We were once very rich, but not anymore. Baba would have to find a job, and those were hard to come by. I wondered if that would make him worry.
In the two years we had lived in our new house with the almond tree, Abbas and I had spent many hours in the tree watching the moshav. There we’d seen things we’d never seen before. Boys and girls, older and younger than me, held hands and formed circles and danced and sang together, their arms and legs naked. They had electricity and green lawns, and yards with swing sets and slides. And they had a swimming pool that boys and girls and men and women of all ages swam in, wearing what looked like their underwear.
Villagers complained because the new people diverted the water from our village by digging deeper wells. We weren’t allowed to dig deeper wells like them. We were angry that while we had barely enough water to drink, the new people were swimming in it. But their swimming pool fascinated me. From our almond tree, I would watch the diver on the board and think how he had potential energy while he was on the platform and how that energy was converted to kinetic energy during the dive. I knew that the heat and wave energy of the swimming pool couldn’t throw the diver back onto the board, and I tried to think what physical laws prevented it. The waves intrigued me in the same way that the children splashing among them fascinated Abbas.
I knew from a young age that I wasn’t like the other boys in my village. Abbas was very social and had many friends. When they gathered at our house, they would speak of their hero Jamal Abdul Nasser, the President of Egypt, who had stood up to Israel in the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis and was championing Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause. I idolised Albert Einstein.
As the Israelis controlled our curriculum, they always supplied us with ample books on the accomplishments of famous Jews. I read every book I could find on Einstein and after I fully understood the brilliance of his equation, E=mc2, I was amazed at how it came to him. I wondered if he really did see a man falling from a building or if he had just imagined it while sitting in the patent office where he worked.
Today was the day I was going to measure how tall the almond tree was. The day before, I had planted a stick in the ground and cut it off at my eye level. Lying on the ground with my feet against the standing stick, I could see the treetop over the end of it. The stick and I made a right-angled triangle. I was the base, the stick was the perpendicular and the line of sight was the hypotenuse of the triangle. Before I could calculate the measurements, I heard footsteps.
‘Son,’ Baba called. ‘Are you alright?’
I got up. Baba must be home from his job building houses for the Jewish settlers. None of the other fathers worked in construction, partly because they refused to build houses for the Jews on razed Palestinian villages and partly because of the Israelis’ policy of ‘Hebrew Labour’: Jews only hired Jews. Many of the older boys at school said bad things about Baba working for the Jews.
‘Join me in the courtyard. I heard a few good jokes at work today,’ Baba said, before turning and walking back towards the front of the house.
I climbed back up the almond tree and looked at the barren land between our village and the moshav. Only five years earlier, it had been filled with olive trees. Now it was filled with landmines. Landmines like the one that killed my baby sister, Amal.
‘Ahmed, come down,’ Baba called.
I climbed down the branches.
He pulled a sugar doughnut out of the crumpled brown paper bag in his hand. ‘Gadi from work gave it to me.’ He smiled. ‘I’ve saved it all day for you.’ Red gel oozed from the side.
I squinted at it. ‘Is that poison leaking out?’
‘Why, because he’s Jewish? Gadi’s my friend. There are all kinds of Israelis.’
My stomach contracted. ‘Everyone says the Israelis want to see us dead.’
‘When I sprained my ankle at work, it was Gadi who drove me home. He lost a half-day’s pay to help me.’ He extended the doughnut towards my mouth. ‘His wife made it.’
I crossed my arms. ‘No thanks.’
Baba shrugged and took a bite. His eyes closed. He chewed slowly. Then he licked the particles of sugar that had gathered on his upper lip. Opening one eye just a little, he glanced down at me. Then he took another bite, savouring it in the same way.
My stomach growled and he laughed. Once again he offered it to me, saying, ‘One cannot live on anger, my son.’
I opened my mouth and allowed him to feed it to me. It was delicious. An image of Amal rose, unbidden, in my mind, and suddenly I was overwhelmed with guilt at the flavour in my mouth. But…I kept eating.